There’s something that bothers me about seeing neighbors gathering in the streets to celebrate things like the killing or capture of our national enemies. Why does it take tragedy and violence to bring us out of our houses to meet our neighbors through mourning or rejoicing with them? How do we move to a place where we celebrate in the street with our neighbors just because it’s something we practice regularly as a community?
I moved to Phoenix a little less than a year ago, just before starting my work with City Square Church. We looked at a few different houses, but settled on the one we ended up buying because we liked the feel of the neighborhood. It was quiet, yet you could easily walk to a nearby intersection that had various cool restaurants, coffee shops, a gym, and much more. We could take the kids to a nearby park and walk/run on the nearby canal path.
Now, when you move to a new neighborhood, in Phoenix, at the beginning of summer, it’s unlikely you will have much interaction with your neighbors. During our brutally hot summers we tend to stay inside or scurry from one air conditioned place to another.
But when the heat broke, in the fall, we began meeting a lot of our neighbors. We were invited to a few neighborhood barbecues and block parties and found that most of our neighborhood was made-up of families with young children, just like us. Now, when we go on our evening walks with our kids we run into our neighbors. Sometimes we stop and chat for a few minutes, other times we exchange a wave and a hello.
A few months ago our house was broken into and the intruder stole some things from our bedroom. The next day I walked around our block and notified my neighbors, many of whom I had yet to meet, of what had happened. They appreciated knowing about the robbery but I also ended up having more in-depth conversations with them, adding a silver-lining to an unfortunate event. I thought to myself, though, that it shouldn’t take my house getting robbed to get out and get to know my neighbors better.
Recently, I learned that a 2009 Gallup poll found only 12% of Arizonans believe the people in their community care about one another (For this stat and a ton of other good information about Arizona, check out The Arizona We Want 2.0).
In other words, at best, people don’t think their neighbors care about them and, at worst, we don’t think our neighbors trust us and/or we think they hate us.
It’s no secret we have trouble being neighborly, here in Arizona. Suburban sprawl creates cookie-cutter communities with two car garages, high walls and the lack of places for the neighborhood to gather. Freeways and un-friendly streets for bikes and pedestrians discourage walking and biking. All of these things create fewer natural interactions for people to have with one another. In addition, many of our laws promote a self-preservation/no trespassing/I can shoot you if I fear you mentality. We especially fear immigrants and just about anyone who doesn’t look or think like us.
I believe, however, that we can do better than 12% of us who think our neighbors care about us, and we can start by finding out who are neighbors are. In Luke 10:25 a lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” But the lawyer isn’t satisfied so he pushes more, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus then goes on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan. During Jesus’ time, Samaritans were considered anything but neighbors as they were seen as unclean and inferior. Yet, Jesus tells a story where those who society considered to be upstanding citizens and righteous religious leaders pass up a man who has been robbed and beaten and is lying in a ditch. But it’s the Samaritan who comes along, helps the man, and turns out to be the hero. In a scandalous reversal it’s the last person that anyone expects who Jesus identifies as the “neighbor” in the story.
It doesn’t matter who we are, we are all called to be good neighbors. It doesn’t matter who our neighbors are, if we don’t get to know them, we’ll let our stereotypes and misconceptions get the best of us.
If our neighbor is everyone and we are called to be good and compassionate neighbors, ourselves, we don’t have to go far to meet them. Your neighbor lives next door to you, sits in the office down the hall, is sleeping on the sidewalk tonight, comes from another country and might look different than anyone you’ve ever met.
Why do we need to get to know our neighbors? Because if we don’t, when people are in trouble, when they are disillusioned, when they are broken, they may have no one else to lean on. When we don’t know our neighbors it’s easy for distrust to take hold, for our fears to get the best of us and see our neighbors as “the other.” But when we know our neighbors fear and mistrust turn to love and compassion, and those are things worth celebrating in the streets.
So what are you waiting for? Go meet your neighbors.